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KUNM News Update

TUES: Agreement Ends Dispute Over Owl, Court Rejects GOP Lawsuit On Absentee Ballots, + More

National Park Service
Mexican spotted owls

Agreement Ends Dispute Over Threatened Mexican Spotted OwlAssociated Press

Environmentalists have reached an agreement with federal land and wildlife managers that will clear the way for forest restoration efforts to resume in the Southwest.

A federal court had issued an injunction last year that limited timber activities and restoration projects on national forest lands in New Mexico and Arizona pending the outcome of a battle over the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

WildEarth Guardians had accused the U.S. Forest Service of failing to comply with the Endangered Species Act by not regularly monitoring the owl population.

Under the agreement announced Tuesday, federal managers will regularly track population trends through 2025. Surveys also will be done prior to ground-disturbing activities and known owl habitat will be protected.

The agreement, which still must be approved by a federal judge, will apply to all 11 national forests in the two states.

The resolution comes after months of negotiations. It follows another agreement that was reached over the summer with the Center for Biological Diversity that included a set of recommendations and other provisions aimed at protecting the owl while allowing forest thinning projects to move forward.

Owl habitat represents about 6% of the more than 1400 square miles forest that are undergoing thinning and restoration treatments in the southwest U.S., according to environmentalists.

First listed as threatened in the U.S. in 1993, the Mexican spotted owl is found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, parts of West Texas and Mexico.

New Mexico Building Infrastructure For Vaccine Distribution - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

It could be awhile before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, but health officials in New Mexico say they have submitted their plans to the federal government for how to distribute it.

They said Tuesday that the focus will be on vaccinating health care workers, first responders and then nursing home residents and staff. They acknowledged that supplies will likely be limited early on and immunizations for the general public would come later.

Health officials outlined New Mexico's plan for lawmakers amid a surge in infections. Lawmakers had questions about everything from cost and security to whether the state would have to compete for doses as it did for personal protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic.

Dr. Aja Sanzone, a leader of the planning team and medical director of the state's Infectious Disease Bureau, said officials have estimated that immunity through vaccination would require immunizing about 70% of the population.

In New Mexico, that means distributing 2.9 million doses if two doses per person were needed.

States had until Oct. 16 to submit their distribution plans to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Mexico officials described the plans as "living documents" with gaps that will be filled in as more information is released by the federal government.

The state Health Department is surveying hospitals, pharmacies and others to identify capacity to administer vaccines. That information is being plugged into an interactive map to help with planning.

One of the biggest challenges will be what Sanzone said is fading public confidence in the development of a vaccine. She said recent survey results suggest there's growing concern that the regulatory approval process has been politicized.

"So our goal really is to restore public confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. It has to be a top priority," she said.

State officials also told lawmakers that the vaccine would not be mandated for any group of people.

Like elsewhere, New Mexico's positivity and spread rates have been increasing. Confirmed cases in the state have topped 43,160 following a string of record-setting days for daily case totals. An additional 590 cases were reported Tuesday, along with another four deaths related to the virus.

Hospitalizations also are four times what they were at the end of September, with more than 300 people currently being treated in hospitals around the state.

Carlsbad To Consider Future Of Its New Mexico State CampusCarlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

The city of Carlsbad has assembled a task force to consider the future of its New Mexico State University campus, including the possibility of operating as an independent university.

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that Mayor Dale Janway said the university removed the president position in August from its Carlsbad and other branch campuses, leaving one executive with authority over all three.

He says there's concern that resources will be diverted from Carlsbad to Las Cruces.

Task force chairman Craig Stephens says he hopes the group completes its work before the upcoming legislative session.

Eliminating the branch presidents' positions came as universities struggled with the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including decreased enrollment.

University President John Floros said last week that enrollment was down about 2,000 students across the entire system. The branch campuses in Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Doña Ana and Grants saw between a 12% and 39% decrease in fall enrollment.

The group tasked with planning the future of the Carlsbad campus is chaired by Craig Stephens, who said the task force hopes to complete its work before the upcoming legislative session.

Storm Blasts New Mexico Making Travel Hazardous In Some PlacesAssociated Press

A storm dropped snow on New Mexico on Tuesday, making travel hazardous in some areas. National Weather Service forecasters said snow was expected to begin tapering off in western New Mexico on Tuesday and then in the Rio Grande Valley Tuesday night, with last snow falling in the state's eastern plains on Wednesday.

Forecasters said freezing rain was possible in southeastern New Mexico. Snowfall was expected to total up to 4 inches in Albuquerque and up to 12 inches in Tucumcari.

In Albuquerque, non-essential city services and municipal offices were closed Tuesday due to snowfall and freezing temperatures that affected driving conditions. Albuquerque residents were advised to limit travel.

New Mexico High Court Rejects GOP Suit On Absentee Ballots - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit by the state Republican Party alleging that partisan poll challengers have been unfairly denied oversight of the initial ballot verification process.

Three justices including the court's lone Republican denied the petition to intervene in the absentee voting process.

The GOP lawsuit alleged that partisan challengers are being shut out of the initial verification process unnecessarily because of privacy provisions and should be allowed to take their own steps to notify voters about rejected ballots.

Under pandemic-related voting procedures in New Mexico, absentee voters must sign and place the last four digits of their social security number on the outer envelop — concealed by a so-called privacy flap.

For rejected ballots, clerks must send a notification to voters within one day.

The court's decision was applauded by the office of Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

"Voters in New Mexico should have confidence that their vote will count no matter if they are voting in person or by mail ballot and they should not be deterred by partisan legal maneuvering," agency spokesman Alex Curtas said. "Partisan lawsuits questioning the integrity of our elections mere days before Nov. 3 only serve to confuse voters and undermine voter confidence."

In a statement, the Republican Party described the court's decision as flabbergasting and a "slap in the face."

"It's sad that the justices will not take up a lawsuit that's so critically important to ensure everyone's ballot is accurately identified and verified," Pearce said.

In a separate lawsuit, the GOP accuses local election officials in two counties of failing to properly monitor ballot drop boxes.

That complaint alleges that county election officials in Guadalupe County have left drop boxes unattended and without video surveillance in violation of guidance from the secretary of state's office. The lawsuit says the situation "leaves open myriad potential for election misconduct."

The Republican Party asked for a court order to "ensure that all drop boxes are continuously monitored and that they are only open and accessible to the public during hours that the polls are open."

The secretary of state's office said in a statement Tuesday that it expects county clerks to follow the agency's security standards and guidance for implementing drop boxes.

The agency has encouraged county clerks' offices to install ballot drop boxes to help minimize human contact and the risks of coronavirus transmission during the election process, while offering financial reimbursements through federal recovery funds.

Republican Lawsuit Alleges Problems With Absentee Balloting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Republican Party is alleging in a lawsuit that its election poll challengers in New Mexico are unfairly being denied oversight of the initial verification process for absentee ballots. 

In the suit filed Monday to the state Supreme Court, Republican officials accuse the secretary of state of interfering with independent oversight as county clerks verify signatures and partial social security numbers on the outer absentee ballot envelopes. It also says the response to rejected ballots is being left open to interpretation.

State election officials say they are complying with a robust oversight process and criticized the lawsuit as a worrisome tactic. 

The Supreme Court is asking for a response from election regulators.

Election "challengers" are appointed by political parties including the GOP at individual polling locations to view voting machines, rosters and the work of precinct boards as ballots are processed and tallied.

The lawsuit hinges on temporary election procedures adopted by lawmakers in June in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Plaintiffs to the lawsuit include county clerks from Lea, Chaves, Catron and Lincoln counties, as well as the Republican state House and Senate minority leaders.

New Mexico Officials Issue Warning About Hospital Capacity - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Officials with three of the largest health care systems in New Mexico say that if COVID-19 continues to spread like it has in recent weeks, hospitals and health care workers in the state will not be able to keep up. 

They issued the warning Monday, as New Mexico deals with a surge of infections. Despite having some of the most restrictive public health requirements since the start of the pandemic, New Mexico has seen three record-setting days for daily case totals in just over a week. 

Hospitalizations also have skyrocketed with nearly 290 people being treated around the state. That marks a four-fold increase over the past month.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said his organization is seeing its highest volume of patients since the pandemic began. 

Of the several dozen COVID-19 patients at Presbyterian, about 30% are being treated in intensive care units.

While hospitals have been able to cross-train staff, move some workers around and bring others on board, Mitchell and officials with Lovelace Health System and the University of New Mexico Health System said there would not be enough workers or beds to accommodate COVID-19 patients or other medical emergencies if the pace of infection continues or grows over the next two months.

Mitchell said modeling by scientists with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Presbyterian shows that around 900 additional COVID-19 cases a day fills about 180 ICU beds as a result.

"If you got into a car wreck, there'd be no place for you to go. If you needed to deliver a baby, there may not be a bed in the hospital for you," Mitchell said. "I mean really if it continued at this current velocity with no rollover, with no tempering back down, it's hard to describe how catastrophic it is."

The seven-day rolling average of New Mexico's positive infection rate has risen from 3.2% of those tested at the end of September to 7.5%, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Comparing seven-day averages of newly confirmed cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results.

New Mexico officials have been warning people for weeks about consequences for the health care system if spread isn't reduced. 

However, a crowd that included student athletes, medical professionals, business owners and others gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday to protest the Democratic governor's public health order and her response to the pandemic, with many saying the mandates have been unsuccessful in curbing the virus.

New Mexico Blasted By Snow, Wind And Freezing Temperatures - Associated Press

Blowing snow and slick roads are creating hazardous travel conditions for northern and central New Mexico. 

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque says travelers should be cautious as road conditions were expected to deteriorate Monday evening and overnight. 

Forecasters say the storm system is expected to reach peak intensity Tuesday with widespread effects, especially in the high terrain and across eastern New Mexico. 

The moisture offers a much needed break for many parts of the state that have gone weeks without rain. 

According to the latest drought map, the entire state is suffering from moderate drought or worse.

New Mexico Reports 732 New COVID-19 Cases And 9 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Monday reported 732 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 9 additional deaths. 

The latest numbers increase the total cases to 42,586 statewide since the pandemic started with 976 known deaths. 

Of the new cases, New Mexico Department of Health officials say 194 were in Doña Ana County, with 173 in Bernalillo County. 

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.